Farah Ghuznavi was interviewed by Soniah Kamal.
Soniah Kamal’s debut novel An Isolated Incident is forthcoming in 2014. She is the recipient of the Susan B. Irene Award and the Paul Bowles Fellowship in Fiction.
1) You have been extensively published as well as won awards for your writing yet you say that you have only recently begun introducing yourself as a writer (Commonwealth Writer in Residence Post 1). What is the difference between writer, columnist and author for you?
For a start, there are some ‘technical’ differences between the three. I’d say ‘writer’ is the most generic term, since it covers anyone working on fiction, creative non-fiction, articles or essay writing. At one level, this is something that I’ve been doing for most of my life, so it’s interesting that it’s taken me so long to own up to the title! ‘Author’ has a slightly aspirational ring to it for me, as I feel it denotes a writer of books. ‘Columnist’ is someone engaged in a very particular form of writing, and that is certainly the hat that I have worn the longest – which may be why I find it easier to do than fiction. There is a discipline and craftsmanship associated with writing columns that makes the process much easier to control than the roller-coaster ride all too often involved in writing fiction!
2) You have said that writing for you is ‘essentially a compulsion’ (CW Post 2), and that even if no-one ever read your work, you would continue to write. Many writers would say the contract of writing begins with the writer but ends only with readers – otherwise why not just write a journal, or why bother to revise? What are your thoughts?
I think it’s true to say that most of us who write hope for, and are appreciative of, any readers that come our way. My point was just that for me, writing is largely an internal process, one that has its own mechanics and pathology. And the way I see it, the primary contract is between me and my (frequently maddening) muse.
Writing a journal is essentially a non-fiction exercise, so that is not really a form in which I would consider writing stories. As for revision, I should warn you that trying to talk a reluctant perfectionist out of multiple revisions is more or less a lost cause!
When you write, you have an idea of the form that you want a story to take. When it’s initially on the page, it rarely resembles the story in my head. That doesn’t happen until it’s been through several rounds of revision. And as far as I’m concerned, there is no point in settling for something that falls too far short of what you initially visualized. That is leaving the job half-done.
3) In order to write you use the lovely phrase ‘headspace’ (CW Post 3) as a requirement for space and time to concentrate on a story. Most writers battle with myriad commitments – day jobs, children, both—as do you, in order to make room for uninterrupted headspace. As such, this may be one reason why writing short stories is considered ‘easier’ then tackling a novel. What has been your experience with headspace and writing a novel? Any advice how to approach keeping larger works within one’s head?
I think headspace is really critical in the writing process. Not least because it allows us to mull over things in a calmer fashion than the demands of everyday life usually allow for. There’s a quote on this from Virginia Woolf that really speaks to me – ‘My mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often my most profitable way.’ The creative mind needs that idleness – which I like to call headspace – in order to conceptualise and map out how to write something.
I have heard it hotly debated just how ‘easy’ it is to write a short story, but I do think that many writers shy away from writing a novel because of the fear that it might involve an even greater commitment to living ‘elsewhere’, i.e. inside their heads, than they already experience as short story writers. I think the trick with planning a novel would partly be to get as many of the details as possible down on paper, and then free the subconscious mind to generate more material. Otherwise you would get bogged down in trying to ‘hold’ all the ideas in your head, which in the case of a novel would be almost impossible. Not to mention being a fast-track route to insanity!
4) As you rightly point out (CW Post 4), many writers from developing countries who hope to publish in the West continue facing the challenge of ‘the danger of a single narrative’, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains it in her TED Talk. Adichie’s short story, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill‘ (Granta), is a hilarious parody of authenticity. Even more insidious is the topic-typecasting and the purple prose of mangos, monsoons and monkeys. Do you feel that Bangladeshi writing faces similar issues? The other challenge, as you point out is, being encouraged to write books with ‘mass appeal’. Under these circumstances might e-publishing (i.e. Kindle) be considered a panacea for writers who cannot or will not ‘give in’ and thus might never find a traditional home for their books?
I think writers from most developing countries, including Bangladesh, face a problem in terms of writing what is ‘expected’, what is comfortable for a foreign (usually Western) reader to deal with. All too often, that involves pandering to stereotypes, and I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by giving into that. Apart from the questions that it raises about authenticity and integrity, the fact is that the more important structural changes in reading and publishing will never take place as long as writers from the developing world continue to ‘know their place’. So I find it heartening that authors like Chimamanda Adichie and Elif Shafak have achieved both critical acclaim and commercial success despite sticking to their guns and telling their stories in the form that they want to. Hopefully that will open up the space for others to do the same, and I believe that that is already happening.
In terms of writing books with mass appeal, I think that it’s problematic for many writers of literary fiction. In any case, the formula for doing so is decidedly dubious, in that there are no sure-shot methods of ensuring commercial success. Those who write in a specific genre or are working on a series of books might find it easier to address the mass appeal factor. But regardless of what you write, I do essentially believe that people must produce the best work that they are capable of, and then trust that readers and publishers – and it really only takes one of the latter to get a book out – will recognise the potential of that work. And of course, if the traditional route does not yield results, or if individual authors feel that self-publishing offers them a better deal, then that route is now accessible to most writers.
5) Often the success of e-publishing/self-publishing depends on marketing and promotion (which even traditionally published authors are expected to do) and too many writers, under the pressure to increase ‘platform’ and become a ‘brand’, lose all joy in writing. What has your experience been? What are your recommendations for balance?
This is a real challenge. It’s true that there is tremendous pressure on authors today, whether they are self-published or traditionally published, to deliver in terms of platform, and to spend a significant amount of time on promotion. I don’t think there’s an easy answer in terms of how to find a balance, but I do think that the starting point is to build up a body of work that is worth promoting. Because that should make the often indigestible task of promotion slightly easier to swallow.
Social media offers enormous opportunities for marketing and promotion. But the fact is, everyone out there is trying to do just that. As I see it, there are two challenges. One is to prioritise writing, and to find some time to put your work out there and to promote it. The other is to bring something to the table, even in terms of promotion, that is different from what everyone else is doing. If what you are trying to brand is you, then it needs to be apparent to a reader why they should be interested in you or your brand.
6) It seems to me that literary fiction from the developing world cannot help but be political (which does not mean agenda-driven, propaganda, didactic or boring) for the writers live and breathe in political atmospheres where something as mundane as buying milk can turn into a conversation on adulterous goods and corrupt politicians. I was listening to an interview with Mohsin Hamid recently on NPR and, instead of the interviewer concentrating on his novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, the questions were all about terrorism and the problems between India and Pakistan. Is it even possible to escape being stereotyped, pigeonholed, type-cast in the world in which we find ourselves?
I think most literature is political, whether it comes from the developing world, or elsewhere. Because people are political beings, and our thoughts, beliefs and values are inevitably reflected in our writing, even when we are not directly advocating a particular perspective. How you write about something, or what you don’t write about, can be as telling in terms of your political views as the actual choice of subject matter in your work.
The example of the Mohsin Hamid interview again raises the issue of expectations and stereotypes related to writers from developing countries, and I think the only way that things will ever change is by writers insisting on telling their own truths, without over-thinking or being bound by what is expected of them. As for interviewers who persist in asking a limited set of questions based on particular preoccupations or perspectives, their intentions can often be subverted by the author who is being interviewed. Someone like Mohsin Hamid is, I suspect, well able to navigate his way back to the issues that he wants to talk about, even when there is an attempt underway to pigeonhole his work.
7) Your Highly Commended flash fiction story from the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010 ‘Judgement Day’ (CW Post 5) is about marital angst and how technology helps, or does not. I was struck on two counts, one, the sardonic, funny tone you employ and two, that you’ve set it in a sci-fi, futuristic world, a genre you say you do not usually work in (my story ‘The Breast’ employs the same devices and this is not a genre I work in either). Your story is very much about women and their rights over their bodies and lives, and yet the tone and genre allows it to be so much more and, in fact, allows you to get away with biting social commentary. Why you think this is? Why not write more stories in this genre?
The concept behind ‘Judgement Day’ came to me almost fully formed, even though it did (as usual) take multiple revisions before the story was ready to send out. I was aware, even as I was writing it, that I wasn’t writing science fiction so much as social commentary, albeit through a piece of fiction that was set in the future. ‘Judgement Day’ is a feminist fable of sorts. The humour came naturally, because the protagonist in this story is a strong woman who is very angry – perhaps most of all at herself – for falling for a trick that leaves her trapped in an unaccustomed situation, one where she is powerless. And the only way that she can cope with her pain and her sense of betrayal is by using sarcasm as a survival tactic.
I like experimenting with different forms and techniques. Not least because I find that I learn new things each time I try a different way of writing – even if what I learn is simply that it doesn’t work for me! Most of the time, something worthwhile comes out of the process. At the time when I wrote ‘Judgement Day’, I had written very little flash fiction and absolutely no science fiction. But it turned out to be a very interesting experience, and experimenting with flash fiction since then really has helped me to learn to write better. As I wrote more flash pieces, I began writing more concisely, became aware of the value of each word I was using.
I won’t say that I would never write another science fiction story, but it’s probably true that it’s not a genre that comes naturally to me. There would have to be a strong creative imperative to write more sci-fi! As it is, I have a feeling that there is a longer version of ‘Judgement Day’ lurking within me. I might actually need to finish writing that before I attempt new stories in this genre…
8) Passion. Personal Development. Professionalism. Persistence. These are the four ‘Ps’ which you say (CW Post 6) should eventually lead to Publication. You also say that the internet has opened up a new world of publishing options these days but that ‘in the long run it will be the best websites and online journals that fight their way up in a Darwinian race to the top’. This, in essence I feel, leads authors back to gatekeepers determining who is a published writer and therefore industry-certified etc. Passion and persistence notwithstanding not everyone can be a ballet dancer, a Grammy winner, an Oscar calibre actor and people readily accept this. Yet writing seems to be the one creative field in which everyone believes that they will ‘make it’ (fame, riches, awards etc…) if only they persist a little longer. Your four ‘Ps’ aside, when do you think a ‘writer’ should call it quits?
I believe that there is a role for gatekeepers in every field – because self-assessment can be a real minefield, one way or the other! – and literature is no exception. But who the gatekeepers are, what criteria they use and how absolute their authority is, remains to be seen in a world where there are, increasingly, alternatives to traditional publishing. Certainly not everyone who wants to be a writer will find commercial or critical success in what is, after all, a very competitive environment. And I think there’s some truth to the rather acerbic observation made recently that there seem to be more writers out there than readers!
If you can’t find anyone who enjoys reading your work, then you might want to re-think your prospects. But I don’t actually agree that writing is the one creative field where everyone believes that fame, riches, awards etc await. If you look at the number of actors currently engaged in valet parking or waitressing in Hollywood, it’s clear that many people are willing to go to great lengths to follow their dreams!
As for when someone should give up, I think that depends entirely on what a person’s reasons are for writing. If the primary motivation is money or fame, then the dream will die a natural (though undoubtedly painful) death when those things fail to materialise. On the other hand, if the main reason for writing is self-expression, a form of therapy or some deeper compulsion, then I’m not sure that you should ever call it quits.
9) I recently guest-edited a special South Asian issue for the literary ezine, Sugar Mule, that featured writers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and included memoir, poetry and fiction. In fact, there was overlap of authors in your recently edited anthology Lifelines (Zubaan Books, 2012) featuring short stories from a younger generation of women writers from Bangladesh. Why did you choose to highlight short stories rather than, for instance, memoir? And what were your criteria for selecting material?
When I discussed the idea for the Lifelines anthology with Zubaan, we all agreed that we wanted to focus on fiction. Focusing on memoir would have also limited the range of stories available to select from, because those would need to be taken from an individual’s ‘real’ life rather than their imagination.
The criteria set by Zubaan were that all of those featured had to be women writers, that they had to represent a younger generation of Bangladeshis, and that all the stories had to be written originally in English. My own criteria were rather different. I was looking for stories that reflected the Bangladesh of today – the social changes brought about by the breakdown of the rural-urban divide, the rapid spread of communications technology, especially mobile phones, and the effects of having more women in the workforce, to name just a few.
I was also interested in examining the impact of migration, not only within Bangladesh, but also with respect to the enormous Bangladeshi diaspora scattered all over the world. I did, however, consciously choose stories that featured Bangladeshi characters – whether they belonged to the villages and the cities of Bangladesh, or to international locations like New York and Addis Ababa. And I wanted stories that were set in different stages of the life cycle and told from different perspectives. So the stories featured in Lifelines are told from the perspective of both men and women, as well as from the young and the middle-aged, from children and the elderly.
10) If there was one piece of advice you would go back and tell a younger you, what would it be?
To be less afraid to try. To be open to possibilities. And to appreciate the pleasures of the journey, regardless of the outcome. Well, that’s three, but I stand by all of them!
11) And now that you are at the end of your residency with Commonwealth Writers, what comes next?
I have to admit, it feels strange to be completing the residency. I’ve loved this opportunity to engage with people from all over the globe, and to explore my own thoughts on writing. But I do feel now that I’m part of the Commonwealth Writers family, so hopefully we will find other opportunities to work together.
I’ve just published my first solo collection of short stories titled Fragments of Riversong, which was launched at the Hay Festival Dhaka, and has been described as one of the festival bestsellers.
One of the short stories featured in that collection, ‘Big Mother’, is going to be part of a theatre project and an anthology based on characters waiting in the visa line outside the US Embassy in Bangladesh. Titled The Line, it’s a creative collaboration between writers and theatre folk from the US, UK and Bangladesh, and should be something to watch out for.
I have a second short story manuscript under way, which I hope to complete in 2014. The latter includes half a dozen stories that are in different stages of development, and a few that are still ripening in my imagination.
Finally, I’ve just set up my author page on Facebook, where I’ll be curating some interesting content, including free story samples, excerpts, and so on. The page is up at: facebook.com/FarahGhuznavi
I’ve had the most wonderful time during this residency, and in addition to the excellent team I’ve worked with at Commonwealth Writers, I’ve also met a number of fellow writers and readers from different parts of the Commonwealth online, and I very much hope to stay in touch with all of them. So here’s to the next phase of the journey, and a huge thank you to everyone who has been part of it so far!